For a budding NASCAR star, being the son of Roy Kenseth of Cambridge, Wis., doesn't have quite the same ring as being the son of Dale Earnhardt of Kannapolis, N.C.—nor does it carry nearly the pressure, hype or distraction. That's why Matt Kenseth, 27, is poised to become the next hot rookie in Winston Cup and possibly even derail Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s bid to become rookie of the year next season.
"I wouldn't trade Matt Kenseth for Dale Earnhardt Jr. under any scenario," says team owner Jack Roush, who's adding Kenseth to his Winston Cup stable, which is led by Mark Martin and Jeff Burton. Roush calls Tony Stewart, who this year became the first rookie to win three Winston Cup races, "an incredible young driver. But I think Matt is of the same quality, and I expect him to do what Tony has done."
When Kenseth was 13, his father, then a 45-year-old businessman, decided that he and his son should get into racing. "He bought a car, and together we learned a little bit about it here and there," Matt says of the family hobby of racing at Wisconsin's short tracks. Matt quickly became serious about the sport. "When I was 14, I did 70 percent of the work on the car," he says. "By 15 I was doing 80 percent, and by the time I was 16 and ready to race, I was doing almost 100 percent of the work." Matt became a statewide star, and when a fierce rival, Robbie Reiser, formed a NASCAR Busch Series team in 1997, he hired Matt as driver.
While Earnhardt Jr. was winning a total of 13 races and back-to-back Busch season titles in '98 and '99, Kenseth emerged as his primary competition. Kenseth won six races all told, was series runner-up in '98 and could have repeated that finish this year if not for a first-lap wreck in last Saturday's season-ending Hotwheels.com 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which dropped him to third in the standings.
In September '98 Kenseth gave Winston Cup team owners a spectacular sneak preview. In his first shot in a Cup car, substituting for Bill Elliott in the MBNA Gold 400 at Dover, Del., Kenseth ran as high as second—at one point passing Martin and Jeff Gordon in one smooth move—before finishing sixth. Kenseth immediately got offers to move to Winston Cup in '99, but he stuck with Roush's long-term plan to move him up in 2000.
In the Busch Series, says Roush, "when you consider what Matt had to work with [the competent work but limited resources of the Reiser team] and what Junior had to work with [the enormous funding and technical resources of the Dale Earnhardt Inc. empire] and how closely they ran together, Matt is going to have a big improvement in his prospects next year, and I don't think Junior will."
Roush Racing can match, if not outdo, Earnhardt Inc. in funding, technological resources and equipment. Reiser will move to Roush Racing as Kenseth's crew chief, while Martin serves as Kenseth's de facto driving coach. "Matt doesn't need a babysitter," says Martin. "He's real good. Once in a while I'll give him advice. But there'll be times when he'll help me."
Concerning his rivalry with Earnhardt Jr., Kenseth says, "I do feel we'll be even when it comes to resources and equipment next year." But he'll have the intangible edge, Martin figures, of "not being Dale Earnhardt's son."